Qualitative research produces lots of data based on informal conversations, semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, observations, archival research, photos, and/or videos. To make sense of this material, we need to organise it clearly in a way that means we can identify relevant themes and the relationships between them. Coding is a method for organising and analysing our data in qualitative research.

You start by reading through all your material while keeping your research objective in mind. The aim of the reading is to:

  • gain a solid understanding of the context
  • notice possible links between topics
  • spot striking/interesting information in the text

While you are reading, it is important that you take note of:

  • themes which come up more than once
  • interesting topics
  • apparent connections between themes
  • your spontaneous thoughts and ideas

After reading through your material, you can begin to systematically organise it using a technique called ‘coding’. Coding means you read through your data a second time and assign ‘labels’ to words, phrases, sentences or entire paragraphs. These labels can be words or short phrases that indicate an important and recurrent theme. In other words, it is a label that captures the essence of a small portion of content.

A good way to do this is to print out your data (e.g., interview transcripts or field notes) and use a pen to highlight text sections and label them with codes. This is illustrated by the example interview transcript below:

Alternatively, you can work in Word and use the comment function to code your data (see illustration below) or use a software programme like Atlas.ti or NVivo.

Codes can be developed in two different ways called ‘inductive coding’ and ‘deductive coding’.

  • Inductive coding: The researcher develops codes by working with the data and writing codes next to the text while reading it. Through this process you can develop as many codes as needed. These are then transferred onto a coding sheet to develop a coding structure (see below). The primary purpose of this is “to allow research findings to emerge from the frequent, dominant or significant themes inherent in raw data, without the restraints imposed by structured methodologies” (Thomas, 2003).
  • Deductive coding: The first step is to develop a code matrix of pre-determined codes which are defined and illustrated with examples. This equips the researcher with a concrete idea of what to look for among the data. The data is then coded based on the matrix without adding more codes in the process. While this approach is more structured, its downside is that important codes can remain unseen and new research topics neglected.

Taken together, the codes build the code structure. The code structure lists every code together with its definition and illustrative examples from the data. This might look like this:

Once all data are coded, the codes are used to develop analytical categories and themes based on which the data are ‘written up’ in form of reports, articles, book chapters, audio scripts etc. (For further information, see Thematic Analysis).

(Author: Hanna Kienzler)

What is it?

Websites:

Inductive and deductive approaches to research by Deborah Gabriel (2013)

This website provides a very short overview of the difference between inductive and deductive approaches to coding.

(Academic reference: Gabriel, D. (2013, March 17). Inductive and deductive approaches to research. Dr Deborah Gabriel. https://deborahgabriel.com/2013/03/17/inductive-and-deductive-approaches-to-research/)

Videos:

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What is a code? Qualitative research methods by Mod•U: Powerful Concepts in Social Science (2016)

This video introduces you to what a ‘code’ is, exploring what it looks like and how you use it.

(Academic reference: Mod•U. (2016, November 1). What is a code? Qualitative research methods [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAKRKZq_Ebo)

Books:

Doing research in the real world by David Gray (2009)

This handbook gives insight into different approaches to coding connected to different types of research approaches and methods.

(Academic reference: Gray, D. E. (2009). Research design: qualitative methods. Doing research in the real world. London: Sage Publications Ltd.)

How is it done?

Videos:

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Qualitative analysis of interview data: A step-by-step guide for coding/indexing by Kent Löfgren (2013)

This video is a short, 7-minute, step-by-step guide to qualitative data coding.

(Academic reference: Löfgren, K. (2013). Qualitative analysis of interview data: A step-by-step guide for coding/indexing [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRL4PF2u9XA)

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What does coding looks like?: Qualitative research methods by Mod•U: Powerful Concepts in Social Science

This short video introduces how to code qualitative data by hand.

(Academic reference: Mod•U. (n.d.). What does coding look like? Qualitative research methods [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phXssQBCDls)

Webinar:

Introduction to coding qualitative data with Delve by LaiYee (2020)

This 30-minute webinar introduces qualitative coding and different types of coding, provides step-by-step examples, showcases tools for qualitative coding and answers questions from the audience.

(Academic reference: LaiYee. (2020, November 18). Introduction to coding qualitative data with Delve [Video]. YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMh_2Q2t6kA)

Website:

How and what to code by Graham R. Gibbs and Celia Taylor (2011)

This website explains the steps involved in coding.

(Academic reference: Gibbs, G. & Taylor, C. (2011). How and what to code. Online QDA. http://www.acrn.eu/cambridge/downloads/files/How%20and%20what%20to%20code.pdf)

Articles:

A general inductive approach for qualitative data analysis by David Thomas (2003)

This article introduces coding, provides a step-by-step explanation of how to do it and illustrates it with concrete examples.

(Academic reference: Thomas, D. R. (2003). A general inductive approach for qualitative data analysis. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David-Thomas-57/publication/263769109_Thomas_2003_General_Inductive_Analysis_-_Original_web_version/links/0a85e53bdc04f64786000000/Thomas-2003-General-Inductive-Analysis-Original-web-version.pdf)

Books:

Designing and conducting mixed methods research by John Creswell and Vicki Clark (2017)

Chapter 7 ‘Analyzing and Interpreting Data in Mixed Methods Research’ explains how to analyse data including coding.

(Academic reference: Creswell, J. W., & Clark, V. L. P. (2017). Designing and conducting mixed methods research. London: Sage.)

The coding manual for qualitative researchers by Johnny Saldaña (2015)

This book is a comprehensive guide to data coding. It is highly recommended to understand what coding is and how it is done step by step. The book is freely available as PDF.

(Academic reference: Saldaña, J. (2015). The coding manual for qualitative researchers. London: Sage.)

Method in action

Books:

The coding manual for qualitative researchers by Johnny Saldaña (2015)

This book is a comprehensive guide to data coding. Chapter 1 provides concrete examples that illustrate what coding looks like. The book is freely available as PDF.

(Academic reference: Saldaña, J. (2015). The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers. London: Sage.)

Articles:

Lived experiences: A focus group pilot study within the mentALLY project of mental healthcare among European users by Axelsson et al. (2020)

This article describes an example of focus groups being used to capture the lived experiences of people who have used mental healthcare services in Europe. The ‘Method’ section gives you an idea of how participants can be recruited and how a moderator performs their role in particular.

(Academic reference: Axelsson, M., Schønning, V., Bockting, C., Buysse, A., Desmet, M., Dewaele, A., Giovazolias, T., Hannon, D., Kafetsios, K., Meganck, R., Ntani, S., Rutten, K., Triliva, S., Van Beveren, L., Vandamme, J., Øverland, S. & Hensing, G. (2020, July 1). Lived experiences: a focus group pilot study within the MentALLY project of mental healthcare among European users. BMC Health Services Research, 20(1). https://bmchealthservres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12913-020-05454-5)